Art News & Views

The Write Stuff

Serendipity would strike a collector if s/he found a Waterman no.420, one of the rarest of the filigree fountain pens produced in early 1910s, only about four specimens of which are known to exist throughout the world.

Today when fountain pens are zooming out of focus and e-mails reign with ubiquity, connoisseurs quest for those vintage and limited edition collectible fountain pens which are examples of elegance and artistry, fine craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty.

An evolution of writing equipments, including dominance of quills, reed pens and brushes for 13 centuries and wide use of dip pens for about 2 centuries finally culminated in the creation of a blemish-free pleasure elevating writing instrument i.e., the fountain pen in the 19th century.

A fountain pen is a nib pen that contains its own internal reservoir of water-based liquid ink. The ink comes to the nib through a feed and then to the surface of the paper as a result of a combination of gravity and capillary action. So, writing with a fountain pen virtually needs little or no pressure. History shows that the earliest forerunner of such pens was created in 953. According to Qadi al-Nu'man al-Tamimi(d.974) as recorded in his “Kitab. Al-Majalis wa'l-musayardt” the caliph of Egypt, Ma'ad al-Mu'izz demanded a pen that would not stain his fingers or clothes and he was given a pen with an ink-reservoir. The ink would be delivered to the nib and the pen could be held upside down without leaking. The next record is from German inventor Daniel Schwenter who, in his “Deliciae Physico-Mathematicae”(1636), described a pen made from two quills, one served as a reservoir for ink inside the quill with cork. Ink would flow through a small hole to the writing point. Samuel Pepys, the renowned English diarist mentioned such pens in 1663. Famous Maryland historian Hester Dorsey Richardson (1862-1933) came by a 1734 notation made by Robert Morris the elder in the ledger of the expenses of Robert Morris the younger, who was at the time in Philadelphia, for “one fountain pen.” Examples of fountain pens were known to be made by Nicholas Bion in 1690. He was the instrument maker to Louis xiv (reigned 1643-1715). His pen design was a simple tubular metal reservoir that led to a quill nib. It was widely imitated in the 18th century. Progress in development of a dependable fountain pen was not remarkable until the mid 19th century as most of the early pens suffered from irregular flow of ink to the writing tips owing to varied reasons, mostly for lack of perfect knowledge about the role of air-pressure in the operation of the pens and the highly corrosive and sediment-prone inks. Starting from 1850s patents for reservoir pens were granted to an extensive range of producers. The inventions of the iridium-tipped gold nib, hard rubber and free flowing ink made the fountain pen a widely popular writing equipment. During 1880s the mass production of fountain pens went off with a bang. American manufacturer Waterman ushered in a breakthrough by developing a feed system which ensured a regular supply of ink to the nib in 1883. After a prolonged labour pain the modern fountain pen saw the light of day. This event marks the start of the marketing of such pens and many companies including Sheaffer, Parker, Folsch and Moseley entered the new and growing fountain pen market. Soon Waterman emerged as the market-leader and kept up its position until the early 1920s.

Fountain pens, at this phase, were filled by eyedroppers. To get rid of this slow and untidy system pen-makers created self-filler pens using flexible rubber sacs to hold the ink and devising means of expelling air from the sac prior to filling. Conklin's crescent-filler, Waterman's twist-filler, Sheaffer's leaver-filler, Chilton's piston-filler and Parker's button-filler came into being. In addition to these there were other fillers inclusive of blow-fillers, coin-fillers, matchstick-fillers and sleeve-fillers.

Technological innovations brought in many changes in the manufacture of fountain pens during the decades of 30s, 40s and 50s. Celluloid replaced hard rubber and wider range of colours and designs was introduced. Some of the most noteworthy models were created during the war period, such as the Parker Duofold and Vacumatic, Sheaffer's Lifetime Balance series and the Pelikan 100. During 40s and 50s market saw a novelty of models launched such as the Parker 51, the Sheaffer Snorkel and the Eversharp Skyline.

The modern fountain pen nib is normally 14 or 18-carat gold with an iridium tip. Gold is considered the optimum metal for its flexibility and resistance to corrosion. Today nibs are often made of stainless steel as developed stainless steel alloys and less corrosive inks have lessened the indispensability of gold.

During the long period of fountain pens glory various pens of unusual designs were produced. Some of those were special purpose pens. Pens with retractable nibs were manufactured by different firms. These pens are called 'Safety' pens. Moore, Conklin, Montblanc, Waterman, Whyworth, Aurora, Kaweco and other pen makers made such pens. Some of these models were decorated with floral patterns and had diamonds and rubies inset.

At the time of the great wars metals were in short supply and glass was mostly used for making nibs. Several glass-nibbed pens were manufactured in Germany and Japan. The British firm of Burnham made a popular model of such pen in the 1930s & 40s.

Demonstrators' pens were produced for salesmen to show the customers the internal components and also how the filling systems worked. These were transparent pens. Market leaders such as Sheaffer(Pens For men), Parker(Vacumatic), Montblanc released this type of pens.

In the 1930s Omas produced a rare kind of pen which consisted of two separate pens fitted into a regular size barrel. The two pens were linked by a mechanism so that each nib extended alternately when the end of the barrel was twisted. Some examples of other pens with innovative and unusual designs are 'Trench' pens with ink pellets in the cap produced by waterman and Moore, 'Mickey Mouse' by Inkograph, 'Popeye' by the Eagle Pencil Co.

Fountain pens are prized items for the collectors. They generally seek two kinds of fountain pens: 'Vintage' fountain pens and contemporary 'limited edition' pens. One of the most expensive limited edition fountain pens is a joint creation between Montblanc and Van Cleef and Arpels. This pen has 840 diamonds and more than 20carats of gemstones set with cloisonné design. A total of nine pens have been released in 3 variations, set with rubies, sapphires or emeralds and accentuated by diamonds. This pen costs a whopping $730,000. La modernista diamonds by the Swiss company Caran d'Ache in homage to Antonio Gaudi(1852-1926), the most famous modernist architect was sold in Harrods, London for $265,000. It is made of rhodium coated solid silver components. It has an 18 carat rhodium-coated gold nib and is set with a total of 5,072 Wesselton diamonds and 96 rubies.

The new age collectors in India value workmanship, artistry, tradition, history and legacy. The Shiva fountain pen by Caran d'Ache priced at Rs. 5.15 lakhs has done well here. Other limited edition pens being linked by Indian collectors are St. Dupont Place Vendom & Family pen at Rs.1.25 lakhs, Pelikan Hanging Gardens pen at Rs.2.25 lakhs and Caran d'Ache 1010 at Rs. 7.75 lakhs.

Although fountain pens are now an anachronism, exotic reminders of a different time and place, almost like a scene from the pages of a Dickens novel, the largest markets for them are in the United States and Southest Asia. The Indian collectors pine for a good market in India and hopefully that is in the pipeline.

- Anindya Bandyopadhyay


Tags: collectibles

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art etc. news & views is a monthly magazine published from India in order to promote art and culture. It intends to raise awareness about art all around India and the world. The magazine covers art exhibitions, auction highlights, market trends, art happenings besides Antique, Collectibles, Fashion, Jewellery, Vintage, Furniture, Film, Music and Culture.